Terrifying contraption designed to save lives

The baby gas mask which is in the Scarborough Collections.
The baby gas mask which is in the Scarborough Collections.

It may look like a prop from an episode of Doctor Who starring Jon Pertwee – in fact, this is a World War II gas mask for a baby.

This terrifying looking contraption would enclose most of the baby’s body – its little face peering out from the window in the steel helmet, while the canvas bag below covered its body, the strap at the bottom fastening securely between the legs.

The canvas was rubber-coated to stop gas seeping through the material, and the straps were tied firmly so that the mask was airtight. An asbestos – yes, asbestos! – filter at the side was intended to absorb poison gas, with an attached rubber tube and pump which an adult could use to pump oxygen into the mask.

Parents were given lessons by health visitors and child welfare centres on the functioning of the masks – but many disliked the idea of encasing their child in what was essentially an airtight sack, and in fact there were many worries voiced about the safety of the masks after some babies fell asleep inside them in a manner which was felt to be unnatural. Some babies were even lucky (or perhaps unlucky) enough to be issued with gas-proof prams.

Gas masks were issued to the British public as the war approached – by the start of the conflict on September 1, 1939, it’s estimated that 38 million had been handed out, although that didn’t yet cover the entire population. Those feeling left out could consult the government leaflet if war should come, which explained that some district leaders preferred to keep gas masks in storage until they decided that an emergency situation had developed.

People were, however, advised to consult with their local Air Raid Warden if they had not been issued with a gas mask, and their neighbours had. It was the responsibility of Air Raid Wardens to ensure that everybody had been issued with a gas mask.

Gas masks for children were sometimes brightly coloured, or cartoon-character-themed, to lessen the fear factor. Presumably it was thought that babies wouldn’t be that frightened – the baby gas mask makes no such concessions.

The British government had sound reasons to issue gas masks. The outbreak of World War II came just less than 21 years after the end of the previous global conflict, so it was still very much at the forefront of many people’s memories.

Thousands of soldiers at the Front had fallen foul of poison gases, including mustard gas – a spectacularly effective and potent chemical weapon which didn’t always kills its victims, but caused immense suffering including internal and external bleeding, and severe and painful bronchial problems. Many soldiers gassed on the Front suffered for years afterwards, with some dying of their gas-related illnesses decades later.

By the time World War II started, aerial warfare was much more sophisticated, and there was a real fear that the Germans would drop poison gas bombs, potentially causing tens of thousands of deaths in London alone: one government advisor predicted a quarter of a million deaths from poison gas just in the first week of the war.

Thankfully, the gas masks were never needed – the much-feared poison gas bombings didn’t happen. And, while baby gas masks like our exhibit this week are a fairly rare find, it’s not uncommon to find adult masks in junk shops these days. If you do find one, be careful – many World War II masks contained blue asbestos in their filters, a mineral now known to be extremely hazardous and a major cause of asbestosis.

The baby gas mask is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.